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Tuesday, August 22, 2000

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The submarine tragedy

THE FADING AWAY of all hopes about the possibility of rescuing any one from the Kursk, the Russian nuclear submarine which had sunk into the sea off the Arctic Circles, is a grim reminder of the utter helplessness to which the world's navies are reduced when such a disaster strikes without warning. The achievement of science and technology which has gone into the building of submarines could be seen from its being wholly protected against the inflow of water when it sails below the surface of the sea. Such a remarkable invention was in fact foreseen by Jules Verne, long before the submarine had become a reality, in his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. The latest disaster to the Kursk is a warning that nothing should be taken for granted and things could go wrong long after the building and the sailing of submarines have become just matters of routine.

The investigation into the sinking of the Kursk should reveal the causes which led to the catastrophe. If, as it is believed, it was brought about by its collision with an underwater object, presumably another submarine, it is very unfortunate that the Kursk could not detect the latter's presence well in time. If this is what had happened, it should by now have come to light with the news of the other submarine having been either damaged or sunk along with the Kursk. The enquiry into the disaster will have to explore what other ``underwater objects'' could have been hit by the ill-fated Kursk. The other horrifying possibilities which have been mentioned in this connection are the explosion of the two tonnes of TNT stored inside the submarine and the torpedoes it was carrying. They raise a few disturbing questions about whether during peacetime submarines should be packed with cargo of the kind which could be put to use only when nations are at war. If it is regarded necessary even during peace time to test the torpedo firing capabilities of submarines, was it not possible for them to have dummy versions of the same instead of the live ones fraught with danger of the kind to which the Kursk was exposed? The grimness of the tragedy could be seen from the impossibility of any rescue operations reaching the air pockets inside the submarine which could continue to sustain lives until they run out. With the Kursk having sunk into the sea, the question of its being rescued by another submarine docking with it does not arise. The tragedy calls for a closer look at matters hinging upon the designing of the submarines of the future to make them safer. A thorough investigation should throw light on how the submarine had become so vulnerable to be flooded by water as this should have been ruled out by the technology which had gone into it.

The Kursk in fact joins a few other Russian submarines which had met with a similar fate. The radiation equipment of another submarine, K- 19, which was launched in 1961 very much against the warnings of the Soviet Commander N. Chernavin that it was not safely constructed became uncontrollable when it was a hundred miles away from a Norwegian Island. K-3 was the other Soviet submarine which was destroyed in a fatal fire when it was six hundred miles away from Newfoundland in 1972. The message from the latest Kursk tragedy is that nuclear submarine technology is still far from being fully grasped. It will be worthwhile to draw attention in this connection to the heavy toll which the German submarines had taken immediately after the outbreak of the Second World War when they torpedoed ships of the British Royal Navy almost every day. The German submarines remained wholly invulnerable for a while until radar, a British invention, made their detection and eventual destruction possible, beginning with the historic sinking of the elusive Grafspee. The nuclear submarine incorporating a much later technology seems to be a teaser for the Russian Navy.

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